There is an old parable about business ethics, where a young ambitious man is hired to run a pickle factory. Being ambitious, he comes up with a brilliant idea to increase productivity. He reduces the number of pickles in each jar by one. The result is the cost per jar falls and the number of jars produced goes up. His bosses are suitably impressed and he is quickly promoted. The firm hires another young hotshot to take his place, he quickly figures out the scheme and repeats the process.
The lesson of the story is that such an approach is not really about increasing efficiency or cutting costs. It is about fraud and the limits of fraud. If this process is carried out a few more times, customers will notice that the jars have a lot less product. Taken to its logic end, the company will eventually be sending empty jars to the market. Of course, once the public catches onto the fraud, the good name of the company is ruined and all of those savings they gained on the front end are lost on the back end, plus interest.
It is a useful parable when trying to understand what has happened to America over the last three decades. Free of the threat of nuclear annihilation, the ruling class has abandoned ethics and morality. One result is we live in a bandit economy, where things like shrinkflation are features rather than exceptions. This post over at Zero Hedge details how the gas you put in your car has been systematically watered down over the last quarter century, coincidentally starting at the end of the Cold War.
Of course, a trip through the supermarket will find plenty of examples of this phenomenon, some of which border on the absurd. The classic pint of ice cream is now fourteen ounces and shrinking. It won’t be long before they will quietly change the definition of quarter to be 2.5 pints. Only conspiracy theorists will notice the change. It used to be that a pint was a pound the world around, but you can’t even buy a pint of beer without a heroic capitalist pulling shenanigans on you. It’s becoming a game with them.
The libertarian line about the market simply being a place where buyers meets sellers sounds good in the hothouse, but in the real world, left unattended, it becomes a grifters alley, where the honest are preyed upon by the unscrupulous. Just as there is never a cop around when you need one, there is no longer anyone policing the practices of our capitalist overlords. If you want to know why people at the end of the Industrial Revolution were open to the call of communism, stand in the chip aisle of your market.
If you are the sort who likes a sandwich and some chips for his lunch, the one thing you can’t help but notice is the bags of chips have grown larger and more expensive. What used to be fifty cents is now a buck-fifty. The bag is also twice the old size, but inside are fewer chips than in the past. It’s already reached the point where the bag is 80% air and 20% product. If this continues on much longer, the lunch time snack will be a dirigible sent to your office containing one chip. That will be your drone delivery.
What the West is experiencing is something people figured out at the end of the industrial revolution. That is, market capitalism is great, except for the market capitalists. Left unsupervised, they quickly turn into bandits in business attire, coming up with clever ways to rob the public. Another feature of this age is the declining number of independent suppliers. It turns out that a feature of unrestrained market capitalism is the strangling of the market by a handful of powerful suppliers, who exercise hegemonic power.
Of course, what is happening here, in a million little daily transactions, is the monetization of public trust. The office workers grabbing lunch trusted that the participants at their local deli were playing fair. Meanwhile, those clever MBA-toting business men and their brilliant ideas about removing just one more pickle from the jar, are exploiting this trust and skimming a few more pennies from the unwitting customer. This sort of practice is modern coin-clipping, which used to be a capital offense.
At some point, when the rubes notice their sandwich can fit in the palm of their hand and the bag of chips is the size of a hot-air balloon, they lose their naiveté and privately realize they are being scammed. We live in a cynical age, because privately, people are coming to believe nothing is on the level and no grift is too small. That has the effect of codifying deceit as a feature of the market and of society. We are rapidly reaching a point where only a sucker trusts anyone other than his friends and family.
This is why unfettered market capitalism is a cancer on society. It turns morality on its head, justifying the unwillingness of the elite to enforce public morality. It’s why your kid’s phone is full of hardcore pornography. The market has spoken and you’re not against the market, are you? Eventually, there is the “A-HA!” moment, when people discover that their private loathing of the daily grift is shared by a large portion of the population. The preference cascade sets the world on fire and morality returns with a vengeance.
To support my work, subscribe here.